Fact can be stranger than fiction, so what can a theatre group’s production tell us about an ailing newspaper industry that the Leveson Inquiry can not, asks Ruth Wishart
My name is Ruth and I’ve just committed incest. At least that’s how it feels. What kind of self respecting journo goes around interviewing other journalists? About the press at that. Thing is, the press have become a bit of a story. What with the Leveson Inquiry unearthing tales of dark deeds, celebs queuing up to shriek “intrusion” (given their legendary hostility to publicity), and assorted senior plods falling on their truncheons.
And, at the heart of it all, press persons going about their paid employment. In an industry running hard to stay abreast of technological revolution, parts of which are drowning not waving.
Watching all this unfold caused a twitching of well tuned antennae at the National Theatre of Scotland. Artistic director Vicky Featherstone and associate director John Tiffany had already got their spring programme done and dusted. But they sniffed a happening which might have a finite shelf life. The possibility of a scoop de theatre. The when of it had to be now. But how about the how?
Enter, stage left, the laptop chancers. How would it be, the NTS asked myself, Deborah Orr and Paul Flynn, if we asked you do a few interviews as building blocks for the new piece. Nothing too demanding. Just 15 each. Oh, and could we have them within the month.
Now all three of us have been around long enough to have a reasonably well padded contacts book. And worked across a fair few titles. And shared a glass or two of lunch with not a few fellow scribes, the more chronologically gifted of whom had either clambered to the top table, or defied medical probability to retire.
These colleagues didn’t only know where the bodies were buried, there was still tell-tale mud on their own spades.
Finding them was the easy part. Getting them to sit down in front of a microphone was trickier. Season ticket holders at Cynics United, they wanted to know what the angle was. What was the story? What would happen to the transcripts of the recordings? Truth to tell, we had little more clue than they did. We don’t make plays for a living, we just go to them. And we too had that season ticket.
So it was with no little trepidation that I took a lift to the top floor of the Hub in Glasgow’s Pacific Quay. A new-build with creative types scattered about offices designed within an inch of their lives. But Floor 3 was unoccupied. And that, in essence, would be the stage; set up with the elements of the editorial floor of a newspaper.
But in week one of rehearsals, you would have been be hard pushed to think so. Sitting behind a battery of electronic gizmos was associate director Davey Anderson. Listening with an author’s ear to the early readings was Andrew O’Hagan. Gathered round a long central table were actors Maureen Beattie, John Bett, Billy Boyd, Gabriel Quigley, James Antony Pearson and Billy Riddoch. Orchestrating the proceedings were Vicky and John with their production team-mates.
But, for me, the most arresting sight was a much smaller piece of furniture in the middle of this echoing space. On it were piles of transcripts, most of them mutilated. Bits of interviews lay around, chopped from the pages. Highlighters and scissors and paste and laptops jostled for table-top room. From that apparently random jumble a piece of theatre was supposed to emerge. Not a play. Not even a documentary. But a rounded, comprehensible production to place before a paying public.
As any of the characters might have said (and frequently do as it turns out), “f*** me”.
At this stage the flesh was weak, but the skeleton was under construction. Three of the interviews would be replicated in sizeable part to illustrate three different facets of that strange construct, the journalistic mentality. The rest of the material would be slotted into a variety of set pieces; the daily conferences, the daily exchanges between staffers.
The building blocks of drama are conflicts, Vicky tells me. Conflict in a newspaper office? As if! She and Tiffany offer up their directorial suggestions as they occur to them. There’s no sense of hierarchy. All the actors throw in their tuppence worth about the bits of dialogue they’ve been allotted as they slip in and out of the various characters they portray. Democracy rules it seems. Well, offers Featherstone, John and I have worked together for years. There’s no need to be precious.
But there is a need to have something polished and sharpened within a very few weeks. And, gradually, the shapes become more clearly defined. The actors grow into a succession of skins. The chunks of transcript are joined at unexpected hips. And lo, they walk.
A week later Paul and Deborah arrive to view the progress of their earlier labours. We all throw in our ten cents worth about how newspapers really work. But, of course, what matters is how theatre works…the devices, the business, the visual tricks, the vignettes which change the pace and tone.
But for the directors and cast this is a different kind of theatre. There is no writer. No script. Andrew O’Hagan, Vicky and John can edit material, but can’t change it. That was the deal. No words are put in anyone’s mouth which weren’t offered in the course of the interviews.
As a result, some of the dialogue sounds quite extraordinary; truth, as we know, being considerably stranger than fiction.
I sneak back for a look the next week, and the interior space has been transformed. Littered in a structured way with the paraphernalia and chaos of the average newspaper office, but still sparsely enough furnished to permit the perambulations of a promenade audience.
The script has met with the further unforgiving attentions of a scalpel. No sub-editor could be more ruthless than a theatre director, I decide. The selected chunks have to do a night’s work or they’re off the movie. On the cutting room floor. Not even big enough for chip wrappers.
But what has emerged is undeniably sharper. More alive, more, well, dramatic. Just as well really! But there’s so much more humour too, black, certainly, but very witty in the mouths of some very good actors.
Then again, in my case they’re delivering to the very much converted. You begin to understand why a cast becomes a de facto family during the creation of a production and during its run. And come over all protective of the new infant. An audience will judge it on starker criteria. Not to mention the critics.
By now the wardrobe department is lurking in the wings with their offerings for the cast. They have the latter’s measurements, but clearly not their measure. All the actors want something a little different. What would journalists wear, they inquire? Just about anything that’s clean, m’dears. The set designer is adding some visual flourishes. Davey is sorting out atmospheric music.
Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany remain remarkably imperturbable. They both have a habit of nodding their heads several times for emphasis after any pronouncement to an actor. For emphasis? Affirmation? Still at least they’re not shaking them.
It’s been an intriguing couple of months all in all. And the first night looms! To go or not to go, that is the question. Hey, try keeping me away.
• Enquirer runs at the Hub, Glasgow from 26 April until 12 May.